Men and Women, Dealing with Each Other

By Israel Helfand, MS, PhD, and Cathleen Helfand, MS
Adapted from Gender Reconcilian, The Next Step for Men and Women
Published in The Northeast Recovery Newsletter, October 1993

In our work with men since 1980, we’ve gradually begun to see that these men feel inadequate in dealing with the women in their lives — wives, daughters, mothers, employees, employers, supervisors, colleagues, and so on. The workplace is filled with confusion these days since attention has focused on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Many of the men in our groups were going through divorces and separations. Some were in marriages that they did not feel secure about. Others felt secure in their marriages, but wondered about that security when they observed the other men’s surprise at learning their wives weren’t happy. The men often felt inadequate when it came to understanding the needs, behaviors, and motivations of the women in their lives, and were frightened of the consequences of not being able to fulfill their wives’ expectations.

The women in our women’s groups reported that the men in their lives didn’t understand them, often leading the women to question themselves. They believed that they were expressing themselves, but didn’t feel understood or heard. Often they were afraid of sharing their feelings because they were told that, unless they had a reason for their feelings, their feelings were not valid. They felt frustrated at having to ask men for things they believed were obvious.

Both men and women were blown away when they realized that the deeper issue was how they had been projecting, onto one another, their relationships with their parents, their family of origin roles, etc. Their true confusion came from feelings they developed about themselves.

Understanding the Differences

Men are brought up to provide material goods for their families. Women learn to nurture emotion and interpersonal relationships. Neither sex has learned to nurture itself. In order to provide, a man may need to cut off his feelings, particularly if he’s working a job that’s offensive to him or he doesn’t believe in the product. Providing for others often becomes more important than providing for his own needs. A woman cuts herself off from knowing what she’s really feeling or what she really wants in order to continue to nurture and protect relationships and people’s feelings — at any cost.

So there’s confusion on both sides. It sounds as if women don’t understand the behavior of men and vice versa. On a political level, there is clearly a war going on between the sexes. Primetime television is filled with portrayals that are damaging to both men and women, such as the inept father, or the helpless mom who loves to shop. Men are publicly putting down women. Women are publicly putting down men. The pendulum, which began to sway when women received the right to vote, then swung all the way to the other side. What we need is balance. Balance comes with understanding and acceptance of the differences and similarities between men and women.

An example of this confusion is the issue of dating or courting in the workplace. Sometimes women say they feel harassed by men who come on to them and want to go out with them — particularly men who are in positions of authority. The men are confused because often women don’t complain. The men’s frustration sounds like this: “You wait and you wait; it’s been going on for a long time and you never complained about it; you laughed at my jokes; you smiled at my come-ons. How am I supposed to know that it’s angering you? If I don’t know how you feel about it, if you don’t confront me on it, and the first time I hear about it is at a hearing, it doesn’t seem fair.” The women, on the other hand, may be scared. he never learned how to confront men. She is afraid of hurting his feelings, and maybe she’s also afraid of losing her job. Remember that her primary training has been in protecting feelings and relationships.

Although men and women may be raised differently, we can connect on a feeling level. The idea is to open the door to all feelings, and then empathy and compassion will ensue. One way is for men and women to come together in co-ed groups to connect on their similarities and differences. In doing so they are also making a positive impact on their family systems, in the workplace and their communities. The co-ed group is composed of a special population of men and women: men who relate to each other on a feeling level because they’ve spent time in men’s therapy groups, and women who feel empowered because they’ve received the support and empowerment offered in women’s groups.

The goal of this co-ed group is to get to the love, and the way that one brings out love is to foster the dialogue necessary to get people talking, sharing and, feeling around their issues of confusion, vulnerability, anger, and sadness. In this way, we encourage understanding, share our intention, and explore the different experiences of being male and female with each other. We journey in time and perception, seeing and feeling the past, present, and future of our lives in relation to the “opposite sex.”

Popularly referred to as a gender reconciliation group, this format works because the men have gotten some understanding of what it means to be a man from having been in men’s groups. They’ve gotten to the point of identifying what it is they’re confused about, what it is that they don’t understand, where they feel inadequate — and they’ve got some good questions. There’s only so far they can go in asking themselves for answers to these questions because the questions are about relating to women. These questions are about having been raised by a mother and about their place in relation to the opposite sex.

The same is true for women with experience in a women’s group who have identified their confusion and their patterns in relationships. It’s important that they’ve worked on assertiveness because it’s very difficult for some women to speak up about what’s going on for them. But even after extensive group work, they may still be spinning their wheels on how to relate better to men.

Stepping into the Future

As marriage counselors, when we work with a woman whose primary reason for attending is to communicate with her husband, we need to treat both the husband and the wife. It is the system that is created when men and women are together that offers the key to transformation. Research shows that there is a greater chance for marital satisfaction when both spouses come together for counseling, and a greater chance for marital dissatisfaction, separation and/or divorce, when either spouse goes separately for counseling (for problems related to the marriage) or one spouse does not go at all.

Healing will not be complete unless both men and women are involved in the process together. Men in men’s groups and women in women’s groups reach a point where they must take the next step and work on it together.

We’re beginning to understand that society is interdependent; we can no longer make decisions without taking into consideration the impact on others. For example, if there are addictions and broken families, then society is going to hurt and the environment is also going to hurt. But if we start healing our relationships, men to men, women to women, and between men and women, then we bring up healthier children and greater respect for the world around us. The children will one day arrive at adulthood equipped with understanding, feeling more confident and able to deal with the other sex. This is vital to the healing of our culture. It is time for us to take the risk — the natural next step — dealing with each other.